Thanks to the unexpected timing of his hire and one of the most unforeseeable twists of fate of all time, Karl Dorrell has been forced to simply roll with the punches since he was hired as Colorado’s 27th full-time football coach nearly 11 months ago.
Less than one month into his first full offseason with the Buffaloes, and one thing is clear. Dorrell’s personal stamp on the 2021 Buffs will be much deeper than during his first chaotic season in Boulder.
Molding a program into a new head coach’s image is nothing new in college football. Yet it might be new territory at CU for Dorrell, who was denied that opportunity through no fault of his own when he was hired last February.
First, the late hiring that ensued after Mel Tucker bolted for Michigan State would have left Dorrell painted in a corner in terms of implementing staff changes even in the best of circumstances. And as we all know, nothing about 2020 can be described as the best of circumstances.
Within weeks of Dorrell’s hiring, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic made any thought of wholesale staff changes an abject impossibility. Spring practice was shelved, the Buffs were forced to get to know their new leader through Zoom meetings, and the remainder of 2020 was more about short-term survival than mapping out long-term blueprints.
Yet the Buffs did more than just survive. Despite the rough finish, the Buffs exceeded all outside expectations in a short but memorable 2020 campaign that ended with a 55-23 loss against Texas in the Alamo Bowl. It wasn’t nearly enough for Dorrell, who has his sights set on bigger goals than a blowout bowl loss in a truncated season.
Dorrell said as much following the Alamo Bowl loss, and he reiterated those thoughts on Friday during his first mass media session since the season ended. Beginning with this past week’s surprising staff changes and the stampede to the transfer portal, the 2021 Buffs already are being reshaped to look much more like the team Dorrell put together and not the one he inherited.
“I went through about 10 days of evaluations. Just me. Just going through a lot of things that I’ve seen this year that I want to move forward, that’s going to help us into 2021,” Dorrell said. “I’m still going through it right now. There’s no time frame in terms of what I’m feeling right now. I just want to make sure when we come out there and line up in 2021, I want to be different than what we were in 2020.
“2020, we’re going to use that as a reference point. But really, 2021 is a whole new year. It’s a whole new objective and a whole new standard of how we do things. For us to get those things accomplished, it’s going to take a great level of commitment both from our staff and our players.”
Dorrell is taking a calculated gamble in his decision to move on from defensive coordinator Tyson Summers. Popular amongst the defensive players, CU’s defense made significant strides down the stretch in 2019 and were able to carry that momentum into 2020, even without spring practice and a late start to the season.
The Buffs improved dramatically in 2020, jumping 18 spots nationally in scoring defense and 28 spots in total yards, even with the bowl performance by a shorthanded defense inflating those final totals. On the other hand, Dorrell doesn’t have to look far to see room for improvement. Even with those steps forward, CU still ultimately ranked 76th nationally in total yards allowed and 77th in scoring defense. Dorrell decided it was worth paying Summers to go away in hopes of improving those numbers.
Dorrell also opted not to renew the expiring contract of strength and conditioning coach Drew Wilson, while a parade of players have marched toward the transfer portal, including popular receiver KD Nixon, starting safety Derrion Rakestraw, and once-productive running back Jaren Mangham.
No slight to those players or any of the others choosing to leave, but the attrition shouldn’t be of too much concern to Buffs fans. Transfers come with the turf after a coaching change. In the case of Dorrell taking over at CU, the lack of spring practice, or really any sense of normalcy in 2020, made it difficult for anyone on the fence about the new regime to opt for a different journey. That it’s happening now should come as no surprise.
Dorrell said the Alamo Bowl revealed just how far the Buffs still have to go — a fun and successful short 2020 season notwithstanding. It will be interesting to watch if Dorrell’s first personnel moves, as well as any others that may soon follow, ultimately help start closing that gap.